A Whack On The Side Of The Head is not a book Harish Bijoor would have normally read. But with hours to kill while waiting for a delayed flight, Bijoor, who heads brand consulting firm Harish Bijoor Consults , picked up the book from an airport bookstore and finished it before landing. “I hate self-help books, but this was hidden treasure,” he says.
B. Venkatesh, a Mumbai-based private equity executive, says he likes to be surprised at bookstores, but that this rarely happens. Last month, he found Whose Water Is It?, a collection of essays on India’s water wars, published by the National Geographic Society, while waiting for a flight at the Hyderabad airport.
Bookstores across Indian airports are offering books, usual and unusual, to travellers such as Venkatesh, who bear the brunt of India’s bursting-at-the-seams airports. The six-month-old bookstore at Mumbai’s airport run by Crossword, a 44-store chain owned by Shopper’s Stop Ltd, does three times as much sales per sq. ft than the chain’s city bookstores.
Traditionally, small and musty airport bookstores that stored magazines and tourist guides and little else have got a makeover, with national book chains, including Crossword, Sankars and Higginbothams, taking over these stores across India—from Mumbai and Bangalore to smaller cities such as Kochi, Coimbatore, Panjim and Ahmedabad.
In 2006, Indian airports handled 33 million passengers. Even as the number of passengers has grown by 25% over the past three years, delays at the busy Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore airports have increased to at least half-an-hour for every flight.
For retailers, airports deliver high-spending shoppers who have time on their hands.
“It is one place we have a captive audience,” says Vivek Sankar, who runs the Bangalore-based Sankars bookstore chain, that operates 15 bookstores out of which seven are located at airports.
Typically, more people come into these bookstores than city stores and a larger proportion of those who come in buy something because they have some time to spare and little else to do.
This offsets the higher rental costs at airports.
Bijoor says he now saves up his shopping for when he is travelling. So books and gifts, including music and nicely packed tea, are reserved for buying at airports. “I buy almost all my books from the airport. It saves me the hassle of traffic jams and finding parking in the city,” he says.
With most passengers being business travellers, airport bookstores sell more books on management and business. At its city stores, Crossword says that children’s books is the genre that it sells the most. And at city stores run by Higginbothams Pvt. Ltd—the 163-year-old Chennai-based company—the most popular books are textbooks.
Airport bookstores also sell more glossy magazines than city ones. Crossword sells twice as many magazines at its airport store as its city outlets.
And when it comes to books, people tend to be clear about their preferences. “People usually know what they want. They have read a review or heard about a book and ask for it,” says Aniyan Nair, head of operations and marketing at Crossword.
Both Crossword and Sankars sell a lot of whichever book is the flavour of the season at their airport bookstores. Currently, it is the new books of Mark Tully and Ramchandra Guha. “We get some customers who buy the same book each time they travel,” says Sankar. “They like to buy books, which are in fashion, put a book mark in the middle of the book so that they can be seen reading it,” he adds.
And while airlines and passengers hate delays, booksellers love them as long as they do not extend beyond 30 minutes. That gives passengers enough time to pick up a book, they say. Beyond that, passengers tend to get cranky, says Sankar, and “they have only us to vent their anger on”.